….Whence came a diametric change of attitude?
Russell B. Guerin
Some time ago, a Mississippi friend who is descended from a prominent 19th century New Orleans family told me excitedly about the restoration of the family villa. I knew about the building, as it is indeed a handsome structure dating back to 1829. It is in the heart of the historical Tremé area.
More recently, this lady suggested that I read about her ancestors in a book called Faubourg Treme’ and the Bayou Road. It is Volume VI of a series of authoritative books about New Orleans architecture. This time, she seemed at least a bit disillusioned, as it told of at least one member of the family who had a plaçage arrangement. Although that member was not necessarily her direct ancestor, she did express some disappointment about the family.
The practice of plaçage is well known to students of Louisiana history, specifically to any reader of the history of the Quadroon balls. However, the word to describe it is not always familiar. To quote one definition, plaçage was “a recognized extralegal system in which white French and Spanish and later Creole men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. The women were not legally recognized as wives, but were known as placées.” Even here, however, I would correct the use of the word “marriages,” as the arrangements may or may not have been formalized in any way, and in fact, real formalization would have been illegal.
` I did as my friend suggested, and noted that the section mentioning her family also called the reader’s attention to several other notable colonial families of the area whose members had arrangements with females of color. In the Treme’section, plaçage was not unusual. A woman who was supported in plaçage lived in a separate household in which the white male was free to come and go. He commonly owned the house, although there were cases in which a free woman of color was the owner. Not all placées were free women of color; some were in fact slaves, bought or inherited by the white male.
The relationship often took place over a long period of time, sometimes a lifetime of one of those involved. Indeed, sometimes the white male kept no other home. Also, he was in many cases a benefactor who acknowledged his children, and often sent them to France for schooling. Local and state law permitting, the placée and her children were named as heirs in the will of the man.
The Encyclopedia of Louisiana includes thefollowing: “Plaçage cannot be simply dismissed as immoral sexual behavior. Laws surrounding interracial marriage, such as in the 1808 Louisiana Code, indicate that interracial relationships were so pervasive that the arrangements had to be legally addressed and curtailed. Plaçage was a social practice of interracial unions that allowed individuals to circumvent racist laws and that changed over time. Sometimes it involved sexual exploitation of women; sometimes it involved love and lifetime extralegal unions.”
Having been a long-time student of New Orleans history, I have known about such arrangements for most of my life. Years ago, in the late 1960’s, I even wrote a novella which described a similar arrangement in which a mulatto woman was “a product of the garconniere,” referring to a practice similar to plaçage. The coverage about this subject in the Treme’ book did not come as a revelation to me. But there was created in reading it an awareness that the institution – which in fact is what it was – of the plaçage arrangement was particularly common in Faubourg Treme’, the neighborhood in which lived the free men of color who were the artisans of the Creole houses of the Vieux Carre’.
Change – diametric and sudden
From that bit of discovery, an evolving of conscious thought led me to a questioning of how much the dynamics of white men/black women had changed. An inescapable conclusion is forced upon me: the change has been as diametrical as it has been sudden.
This revelation may become obvious to someone whose life span encompasses the days of segregation in schools, restaurants, bars and parks, of white-only water fountains, of covenants on housing developments, and of laws that declared a person black if “any traceable amount of Negro blood” could be found in his ancestry. There emerges a conviction that the change in the way white men relate to black women is more than can be explained by passage of time.
In the period covered by plaçage, there was not only acceptance, but veritable appeal and even love and devotion. Sometime later, perhaps best marked by the Civil War, the relationship became one of rejection on the part of the white male. White society placed a taboo on anything resembling an intimate connection.
Maybe sociologists have acknowledged and explained this change, but if they have, I have not found such a study.
It may be that the attitude of whites to blacks was already changing prior to the war. This is suggested because there was an important change by way of an 1857 act prohibiting emancipation. It destroyed the planning that had previously been done within families of the plaçage system. The law was even employed retroactively in some instances to undo manumissions and inheritances that had been in the wills of prominent wealthy Creoles.
Where cases were contested in the courts, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the 1857 law. It then became more possible for distant and greedy heirs – not “forced heirs," as in the law – to undo well thought out plans.
Post Civil War
The war destroyed much of the wealth of those who had been happily ensconced in plaçage arrangements, thus making impossible the support of two households and two families. But more than that, the war destroyed also the self-image of Southerners. A white male was no longer in control; he was defeated. His psyche was changed.
Undoubtedly, there was also resentment about the price paid in blood and treasure for those who fought the war in an attempt to continue slavery, at the heart of the South’s economy. Ex-slaves, now no longer valued as before, became objects of hostility: men were despised; the word “wench” which had previously been used as a term in slave trade was now applied to all black females.
Though emancipation was slow in effecting real freedom for slaves, the fact was that plaçage had produced many offspring whose economic status rivaled free whites. This was true for females as well as males, and for the former, the prior system was not so attractive as it had been. Some were property owners and entrepreneurs, who now could exercise choice, thus rejecting the offers of white men of the past.
One mention which I have found speaks not specifically about plaçage, but instead about marriages between ex-slaves during Reconstruction. The finding is that they gladly made legitimate their own unions – that is, between black and black – after emancipation, sometimes holding marriage ceremonies in large groups (Source: Jim Crow, Ferris State University). Accepting of this finding leads to the conclusion that white males were no longer free to choose among large numbers of black or part-black females. In essence, those ladies were now taken.
It can be further surmised that male blacks also were asserting themselves. This in itself caused a change. Whereas heretofore wealthy whites might have felt paternalistic toward their male slaves and free men of color, they now would feel replaced in the new order of things.
Carpetbag government did not foster the improvement of self-image among the deposed.
The new ranking must have bred anger among the males, black and white. And there might have been infected the emotion of jealousy. Remember Iago to Othello: “…beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss….” And so the anger is placed by the displaced white male upon both black males and females.
The quote from Jim Crow, above, continues: “Unfortunately for Black women, Emancipation and Reconstruction did not stop their sexual victimization. From the end of the Civil War to the mid-1960’s, no southern White male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a Black woman.” The point here is that such violence was in no way like the love and devotion often exhibited in the era of plaçage. Once more, the enormity of the change is evident.
One claim, in a piece called “The Honest Courtesan,” by Maggie McNeill, states, “many of them [former placées] turned to high-class prostitution in the city’s booming brothel industry….Many of the most sought-after courtesans and wealthiest madams in Storyville were Creole beauties whose great-grandmothers had been placées.”
This may be so, but it does not describe the participants whom I have been contemplating. At best, the Storyville era might have been a stage along the way of the change in attitude. Once again, it is not representative of either the devoted benefactor or the appreciative beneficiaries who supported the plaçage system.
I am unable to draw a conclusion. As so often happens, an investigation uncovers more questions than answers. I cannot fully give reasons, but am nonetheless convinced that there was a difference between plaçage days and those of my childhood and before that cannot easily be explained. It was an enormous difference. It happened over a relatively short period of time.
What I do know is that things are better now than they used to be. While we still have de facto school segregation, acceptance of blacks has improved in the workplace, in housing, and certainly in social ways. Matrimony in now not only legal among whites and blacks, but also honored.
But perhaps only those of my age and older have the full realization of the way things were decades ago. I do recall white only schools and workplaces. I recall as an altar boy in a 9th ward Catholic church that black communicants had to wait until all whites received communion before they should approach the altar rail. And, they were relegated to the left-rear for seating, maybe not by rules, but by what was expected. I think my father was a good man, but I remember that when he was teaching me to drive he pointed out a black man in another car and said, “If that darkie can learn to drive, so can you.” I have a bad memory of my uncle saying that the races would never mix because of the odor of black people, whereas he instructed me that white people smell like lilacs. I have a better memory of my brother risking his own safety when he came between several white youths and a little black kid whom they were about to beat up for fun.
If nothing more, we celebrate the change.